As an ex-Catholic, I grapple with the questions: Did Jesus exist? And if not, where did Christianity come from?
I was raised a Catholic, but by the time the nuns had finished with me, I was convinced that Christianity could not answer my questions. Just like the catechism questions and answers I had to learn in primary school, as far as I could see, the Church was only willing to answer the questions they set themselves. I found it difficult to understand how Christians came to believe in the Resurrection or that Jesus’ Crucifixion had achieved eternal salvation. The world was no better a place after his death than before.
However, like many other ex-Christians, I still accepted that a man called Jesus may have preached in Palestine in the first century CE, but if I had any thoughts on the matter, it was that his intention was not to declare himself the god of a new religion, but to reform Judaism.
As an adult I got involved in Tibetan Buddhism and while I was uncomfortable with some of its religious trappings, I saw it as a philosophy of the mind with a scientific approach rather than a religion. Unlike the church, the Buddha himself told his followers not to blindly accept his teachings, but to test them for themselves. I may have lapsed in my practice, but Buddhism showed me that there is another approach to the age-old questions that does not demand that you believe the impossible.
A few years ago, I came across the writings of popular American Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman. In his book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradiction in the Bible, Ehrman expounds the historical-critical approach to the Bible that is taught to all divinity students, but which is hidden from lay people for fear that it might engender doubt. His thesis is that Jesus was not God, but an apocalyptic preacher who taught that the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world was imminent. At some point Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had risen from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. How this happened Ehrman cannot say. He thus draws a veil across the Resurrection, saying that it is in the realm of miracles, and as an historian he does not deal in miracles.
Yet Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection are at the very heart of Christianity. Without them there is no Christianity, just a collection of pious platitudes. As far as I am concerned, any critique of Christianity that does not explain the Resurrection is pointless.
When I discovered YouTube, I looked Ehrman up and watched several of his lectures. And it was the YouTube algorithm that led me to Ehrman’s arch-rival, Richard Carrier and Mythicism.
Did Jesus exist?
The general consensus among Biblical historians is that a man called Jesus existed and his teachings began the movement that we now call Christianity. This is called Historicity. Historicity covers a wide range of theories about this historical Jesus ranging from that he was actually God manifest on Earth to that he was just an ordinary man, but an inspiring teacher around whom various legends have accreted.
In the field of History, the general consensus is usually accepted as the best explanation and description of the past available. However, Biblical scholarship is encumbered by intractable vested interests. As Upton Sinclair put it: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. The vast majority of Biblical scholars are either believing Christians or beholden to Christian institutions for their funding or jobs. Since the very survival of Christianity requires there to have been an historical Jesus, there is little chance they will ever deny his existence and risk not only their current jobs but their future careers.
However, in the last century or so, a small but growing number of scholars have doubted that Jesus the man ever existed and propose that he is just a myth. This position is called Mythicism. This stance also covers a wide range of theories from the outright whacky to the vigorously academically tested. The soundest Mythicist theory is that put forward by Canadian author Earl Doherty and tested and propounded by American historian and philosopher, Dr Richard Carrier.
What is Mythicism?
While I contend that the Doherty/Carrier model is the best available theory of Mythicism, the two most popular competing theories have been championed by Joseph Atwill and the late Dorothy Milne Murdock, better known by her pen name Acharya S.
D.M. Murdock saw many parallels between Jesus and ancient gods of the Middle East, especially the Egyptian god Horus, and claimed that Christianity is a fabricated religion based on an amalgamation of other Middle Eastern myths. Her work has been criticized for what Dr Carrier calls ‘Parallelomania’, a tendency to see causality in correlations, even when the correlations are not actually there. There are indeed parallels between the gods of the Middle East and Christianity, but the connection is much more organic than Murdock claimed.
Joseph Atwill’s theory is particularly whacky. He contends that the Roman Emperor Titus, who had put down the Jewish rebellion and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE, commissioned the Jewish historian Josephus Flavian (and others) to write the New Testament in order to subvert nationalistic Judaism and turn Jews into amenable pacifists.
My first objection to this theory is that the authors must have been very clever indeed to cover their tracks by weaving so many contradictions into the text. One would expect a synthetic religious text, especially one designed to create peace, to at least have a uniform message in order to avoid all the division and heresies that have followed in the centuries since. One also wonders why a Roman Emperor, a military commander with many successful wars under his belt, would bother to use theology to pacify the Jews when he had much more direct and effective means at his disposal. Nonetheless, there are connections between Josephus and the New Testament, but the relationship is not so direct.
To make sense of the Doherty/Carrier thesis, we have to go back to the beginnings of agriculture in the Eastern Mediterranean where the earliest farmers worshipped local gods whose annual life cycles reflected the rhythms of the agricultural year. Just like the seeds of grain these farmers planted, their gods would die or go into the underworld during the winter and be reborn in the spring.
With the Hellenization of the Middle East, these agricultural myths came into contact with Greek religious beliefs and philosophy which gave them a deeper meaning. The journey of these gods through death and rebirth was re-interpreted to be not just about the death and rebirth of seeds of grain, but about the potential for the human soul to overcome death and be reborn in the next world. These dying and rising gods became more than the gods of local villages, worshipped in order to ensure the survival of the community, but personal saviour gods who could promise their adherents eternal life and were worshipped in secret rituals called Mysteries.
In the meantime, the Jews found themselves at the crossroads of great civilizations and all-conquering empires. Invaded and enslaved again and again, they developed a mythology in which they became the chosen people of their all-powerful god Jehovah. Through his prophets he promised them that he would send a Messiah that would scatter all their enemies and herald the End of Days when the whole world would be destroyed and cleansed of all but Jehovah’s chosen people. When the Messiah repeatedly failed to arrive as predicted, they would return once again to their scriptures looking for secret clues as to when their day would finally come. Through their reading of the Book of Daniel, many believed that time would be around the time we know as the first century CE.
The Temple in Jerusalem was central to the Jewish people, as it was only there that they could practice the annual rites and sacrifices that ensured the survival of the community and their individual salvation. However, their conquerors had little respect for Jehovah as the one true god or his temple. In 167BCE, the Temple was sacked and desecrated by the army of the Seleucid Empire, then, after a brief period of independence under the Hasmonean dynasty, from 63BCE, Palestine was occupied and governed by the Romans. The Jewish priestly class had little choice but to accommodate their polytheistic overlords and collaborate with them. For many Jews, this was an anathema that polluted the Temple and rendered the rites carried out there null and void.
Some Jews developed a theology that would bypass the Temple and give them a direct line to God and their personal salvation. Rather than the annual animal sacrifice, they needed one all-mighty sacrificial victim that would render the sacrifices at the Temple obsolete. What better sacrifice than the son of God himself, and like the dying and rising gods of their neighbours, this perfect sacrifice would die to defeat all sin, rise again and return to the heavens, just as his faithful would.
This theology was revealed to its adherents, like the apostle Paul, through visions and secret codes read into the scriptures. There they found this perfect sacrifice in an existing celestial primordial entity, Joshua (literally ‘God’s Saviour’), or, as the Hellenised, Greek-speaking Jews called him, Jesus. Through their reading of the scriptures, they came to believe that this Jesus had taken physical form and descended from the highest heaven down to the firmament, the closest heaven to the earth, where Satan and his demons lived. There Jesus tricked the demons into crucifying him, thus bringing about their own defeat, after which he rose from the dead and returned to the highest heaven where, in return for his great sacrifice, God adopted him as his first-born son.
From 66 – 73CE, in response to a rebellion by the Jews, the Romans ravaged Palestine and destroyed the Temple in 70CE. This gave the Jews an added incentive to find an alternative religious practice. For some this became Rabbinical Judaism, for others it became Christianity. While the Jews clung to their belief in a future Messiah, Christians came to the conclusion that a Messiah that would lead an earthly war against their enemies was not feasible, and instead, concluded that the Messiah would not have his victory on earth but in the heavens, and, indeed, as Jesus, already had.
Eventually, again taking the religious practice of their neighbours as example, Christians wrote stories about Jesus that placed him as a human being on Earth. These stories were meant as allegories with which to gain converts. Once initiated, the converts would learn the cosmic truth behind the earthly parables. However, in the diverse marketplace of religions that was the ancient world, an earthly Jesus would be a much more effective sell than a cosmic one and so, over time, some Christians (dubbed the proto-orthodox by Ehrman) began to teach that these stories were true and that Jesus had walked as a man on earth. This would also allow the proto-orthodox to claim that their doctrine and authority could be traced back to this earthly Jesus, thus putting them in a strong position to compete with any other Christians proclaiming new revelations coming directly from a celestial Jesus. (See Passion Play: Mark’s Passion Narrative as Allegory.)
By the time the future Emperor Constantine was fighting his rivals for leadership of the Roman empire at the beginning of the 4th century CE, Christianity, although still a minority religion, was widely dispersed and well established in the Roman Empire. During his reign from 306–337CE, Constantine adopted Christianity (while still practising Sun Worship) as one of Rome’s state religions and by 395 CE it had become the only state religion. It so happened that the branch of Christianity Constantine favoured was the proto-orthodox sect. How or why he came to this decision is shrouded in religious hagiography. Most likely he was raised as a proto-orthodox Christian himself, but as a politician he would have also realised that the religion of this minor sect was not only theologically uniform and amenable to centralized authority, but culturally neutral, and thus an ideal vehicle for unifying the vast and diverse Roman Empire.
This gave the proto-orthodox leadership the power and resources to impose their theology on the whole Roman Empire. Over the following millennium or so, the Church fathers managed to suppress all but a few remnants of any alternative version of Christianity, while ensuring that only the records and literature that they favoured would survive, except, as we have only discovered in the last century or so, for a few buried fragments.
The Evidence for Mythicism
The evidence for Mythicism is thoroughly examined by Dr Richard Carrier in his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, and by David Fitzgerald in his books Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All and Jesus: Mything in Action, so I won’t go into it in detail here, except to give you an overview. (You can also find several talks by both these authors on my YouTube playlist Essential Mythicism.)
When I told a friend of mine about Mythicism, her reaction was typical. Denying the existence of Jesus was akin to Holocaust Denial and, as the Romans were meticulous record keepers, we have lots of records about Jesus’ life and crucifixion. However, much as I love her, my friend was wrong on both counts.
We have a great deal of evidence about the Holocaust. We have the physical evidence of concentration camps and extensive records kept by the Nazis as well as films taken by the Allied troops who liberated the camps. Even before the Liberation, journalists and intelligence agencies were reporting on wholesale slaughter by the Nazis. After the war, thousands upon thousands of eyewitness testimonies were collected and we still have living survivors who can tell us about their own experience. With such evidence, denying the Holocaust is entirely illegitimate. On the other hand, questioning the existence of Jesus is entirely reasonable.
We have none of the evidence for Jesus that we have for the Holocaust, not even the Roman records my friend assumed existed. While we have fragments of Roman documents accidentally preserved through time, we have absolutely none that mention Jesus or his crucifixion. Neither do we have any of the family or church records we might expect to have been kept by his family and followers. Indeed, if such records existed, would they not have been put on display for all to see, rather than, as my friend suspected, being locked away somewhere in the Vatican archives?
There is no archaeological evidence at all that can be legitimately linked to Jesus, and apart from the Bible itself, there is very little documentary evidence, and what there is is of no value at best and dubious at worst. (At the time I had the aforementioned discussion with my friend I was able to refer her to a Catholic website that listed those sources verbatim. I had hoped to publish a link to that list here for my readers, but that page seems to have disappeared. All I can find now is discussions of those sources replete with Christian propaganda. It seems that the authorities have been so spooked by Mythicism that they don’t dare allow readers to evaluate the evidence for themselves.)
The most valued source is a paragraph found in Josephus Flavian’s Jewish Antiquities, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, which calls Jesus ‘the Christ’ (the Greek equivalent to the Jewish word ‘Messiah’ and a word which Josephus never used) and basically summarises Luke’s gospel. However, this passage is not in Josephus’ style, has been obviously inserted into a longer passage, and was not noticed until 300 years after the book was written, not even by earlier Christians who had combed Josephus’ histories and criticised him for not mentioning Jesus. In fact, it takes little examination to see that this passage is clearly nothing more than a forged fourth century interpolation.
Another mention in the same book can be found in a long passage about two brothers called James and Jesus, where this Jesus is described as a person ‘who was called the Christ’. However, this story is so different to the one in the gospels, it is obvious this is another Jesus. (Both the names James and Jesus, or Jacob and Joshua in Hebrew, were common names in Palestine, so two pairs of brothers with those names is no great coincidence.) In fact, the passage goes on to name the father of these two brothers as Damneus, not Joseph. This was most likely an accidental scribal insertion of what started out as a marginal note.
There are only a handful of other sources which are little more than passing mentions of Christians and what they believed: evidence of the existence of Christianity, indeed, but hardly of Jesus Christ. Moreover, most of them are questioned as either changes to or interpolations into the original text. Meanwhile, even though this period is one of the most attested in ancient history, none of the many philosophers and historians who might have written about Jesus even mentioned him. Furthermore, of those histories of the era that do survive, the sections covering this period are suspiciously missing, suggesting that the church suppressed them because they did not mention Jesus.
Jesus in the Gospels
Christians set great store by the gospels as evidence of the existence of Jesus. What better evidence, they ask, than four independent eyewitness accounts? However, the gospels are replete with both historical and physical impossibilities, so from the outset, it is clear that, as witness accounts, they are highly unreliable. Furthermore, there are inconsistencies and vast differences between the gospels, which would indicate that the accounts cannot be of actual events.
Indeed, the gospels never claim to be eyewitness accounts. The closest they come is in the gospel of John where the authors claim to be basing their account on that of an unnamed disciple. (We do not know who actually wrote the gospels. Authors were attributed to them many decades after they were written, but we continue to call the authors by those names as we have no others. All we know is that they were highly educated Greek-speakers who referred to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, as their scriptures.)
In fact, the gospels display meticulous rhetorical tropes and structures that indicate that they are works of polemical fiction, in fact, allegorical myths. Furthermore, Mark’s Jesus himself tells his disciples that he is preaching in parables in order to disguise the hidden truths of his teachings (Mark 4:11–12), again indicating the gospel itself is a parable disguising hidden truths.
Biblical scholars have long recognised that the first three gospels, known as the Synoptic gospels, are all based on the same sources. In fact, Matthew and Luke are clearly revised versions of the gospel of Mark. While large sections of their gospels were lifted verbatim from Mark, they made changes and added material in order to deliver a different message. While John’s gospel is very different to the first three in content and message, it is evident that he knew the Synoptic gospels and that some of his stories are actual reworkings of or responses to them. (See Jesus and the Naked Man)
In Mark, Jesus never claims to be God, but declares that the End of Days will come within the lifetime of his own disciples. As the End of Days did not come, the evangelists had to adapt Jesus’ message until Mark’s soon-to-come Kingdom of God on Earth, became John’s eternal Kingdom of God in Heaven which can only be reached through a Jesus who loudly proclaims himself God.
The Synoptic gospels also deliver different messages in relation to the preaching of the gospel to gentiles and Jews. While Mark’s gospel is gentile friendly, Matthew clearly states that gentiles can only become Christians if they first conform to Jewish law. Luke, on the other hand, tries to reconcile gentiles and Jews, teaching that the gospel is equally for both, a message he carries through to the Acts of the Apostles. Meanwhile, John is stridently anti-Jewish.
The gospels themselves also reflect the earthly Jesus’ journey from myth to history. Mark’s gospel presents itself as parable which disguises cosmic teachings. Matthew emphasises that the story of Jesus is rooted in Jewish scriptures, where the celestial Jesus originated. Luke is the first gospel to present itself as history, while the gospel of John continually asserts that it is telling what really happened. This trajectory suggests that Jesus was understood as a celestial being when Mark wrote his gospel, by the time Luke was writing, the proto-orthodox church had begun teaching Jesus as historical, while John was written to rebut any lingering doubt that an earthly Jesus ever existed.
Jesus in Acts and the Epistles
Despite their position in the canon, the earliest Christian writings in the New Testament are the epistles, most of which are attributed to the Apostle Paul (although, most scholars agree that only seven of those are authentic). While Christians interpret Paul’s epistles with foreknowledge of the gospels, if his letters are read on their own terms with an open mind, it becomes clear that Paul never wrote about a Jesus who walked the earth, preached and gathered disciples. His Jesus came to him through visions and his reading of Jewish scripture. Even when defending his beliefs, he never resorted to quoting Jesus or his disciples, but instead quoted scripture.
Indeed, many of Jesus’ sayings and teachings found in the gospels can be found in Paul’s epistles, but the trajectory is much more likely to be that the gospel writers derived these from Paul and then gave them a fictional, real-world context. For example, we do find the establishment of the Eucharist in First Corinthians. However, Paul calls it the Lord’s Supper, not the Last Supper, and his description of it reads as a private vision between him and Jesus rather than a description of a real meal with other people in attendance. (1 Cor. 11:23–26)
Historicists can claim only two instances in Paul’s epistles as evidence that Jesus existed as a living man, both from the letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 4:4 Paul writes that Jesus was ‘born of woman’. However, the correct translation is ‘made of woman’ and this is part of a discussion that is clearly metaphorical. He never mentions Mary, Joseph or Bethlehem.
The second is in Galatians 1:18–19 in which Paul describes his visit to Jerusalem where he met with Cephas (Peter?) but ‘did not see any other apostle except James the brother of the Lord.’ Again we have to be aware of nuances of translation. Ancient Greek has only a definite article so it could equally be translated as ‘a brother’ or ‘the brother’. And note Paul calls James a brother of ‘the Lord’, not of ‘Jesus’. Nor does he say anything more to or about this James and certainly does not show him the attention or deference due the brother of one’s saviour. In fact, Paul is dismissive, even hostile, towards the Jerusalem church leaders, and is adamant they have no greater authority or knowledge of Jesus than he does. So rather than this James being the biological brother of Jesus, it is much more likely that ‘brother of the Lord’ means no more than ‘baptised Christian’.
Luke must have noticed that Paul never claimed to have known an earthly Jesus and so accounted for it in the Acts of the Apostles with his depiction of Paul’s vision and conversion on the road to Damascus long after Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, Paul never mentioned any such incident in his letters. In fact, most of the stories recounted about Paul in Acts are not in the epistles and, in some cases, Paul actually contradicts Acts. To convey his message of inclusivity, Luke has constructed Acts to present a point by point parallel between Paul, apostle to the gentiles, and Peter, leader of the Jewish church. Moreover, he makes them even greater miracle workers than Jesus himself. This is all indicative that Acts is also a total work of fiction. (See also When did Christianity Begin?)
Biblical scholars also claim the fact that there are many parallels between them and Josephus’s histories as proof that the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are true. However, as a writer of historical fiction myself, I know that one tries to create verisimilitude by populating one’s fiction with real people and events drawn from authoritative histories. Indeed, there are such parallels, but they are evidence that the evangelists, Luke in particular, drew on Josephus for historical background and even for storylines. Moreover, there are many errors in Acts and the gospels about the geography, laws and customs of Judea and Galilee, which demonstrate that the evangelists never lived in or even visited those places, nor were they able to draw on the experiences and knowledge of people who had. Again, this is more evidence that the gospels and Acts are pure fiction.
The problem with Christianity
Most Mythicists discourage challenging Christians head-on with the evidence that Jesus never existed, as they believe Christians will never accept it and just dig in. They feel the discussion about Mythicism should be solely a ‘Debate between Atheists’, and that one should take it gently with Christians, conceding that Jesus existed, but debating whether or not he was God. And I must admit, my residual Catholicism makes me shy away from confronting my Christian friends. We were taught that it was wrong to challenge a believer’s faith as though it were something fragile that might easily shatter. Nonetheless, I would rather let such a friendship lapse than subject believers to my Mythicist proselytising.
But on the societal level, I feel it is important to challenge Christianity with the evidence that Jesus never existed. Our very existence as a species may depend on it.
Now, I would have no great problem with Christianity if the people who called themselves Christians actually followed its teachings: if they practised charity, loved their neighbours as themselves, loved their enemies, refrained from throwing the first stone, judged not lest they be judged, refused to live by the sword and turned the other cheek. (And I have known several who do.) However, too many of them believe that a book of legends and parables written more than 2000 years ago is literally true, eschew science and any learning outside the Bible’s covers, are obsessed with other people’s sex lives, try to impose the lifestyle they propound on everyone else while, more often than not, not adhering to it themselves, use their religion as an excuse to attack and discriminate against anyone they do not agree with or approve of, and aspire not to holiness but to power.
How can any Christian condone the clergy’s sexual abuse of children and how fixated the churches – the worst amongst them being the Catholic Church – were with covering it up in order to maintain their power and authority? But Christianity’s transgressions go even further.
In the US, fundamentalist Evangelical Christians are trying to subvert the education system to foster ignorance and bigotry. They call themselves ‘pro-life’ while resisting all anti-Covid health measures, promoting civil war, supporting the death penalty and opposing any attempt at gun control. They will not admit it, but it is obvious that they only oppose abortion so as to control women and punish them for having sex. They have foisted Donald Trump on the world, an idiot who brought us to the brink of World War III, and aided and abetted his attempted coup against an elected government.
Here in Australia, Christians have taken over the conservative parties and have worked hand in glove with the fossil fuel industries to block any progress on combating climate change. It has taken decades to get voluntary euthanasia through state parliaments and they tried their best to stop the introduction of same-sex marriage. When they failed, they insisted on the government putting forward a ‘Freedom of Religion’ Act in a country that already has total religious freedom. Fortunately it failed, but it was evident that all they wanted from this law was even greater freedom to discriminate than is already available to them through exemptions in the existing legislation. Scott Morrison, our ineffective former Prime Minister, was a Pentecostalist who deliberately ignored warnings about the dangers of bush fires and floods which have ravaged this country and, like Donald Trump, put holding onto political power, and ‘protecting’ the economy, ahead of preserving our lives in his response to the pandemic.
However, their most dangerous belief is fundamentalist Christians’ certainty of the imminence of the End of Days, the return of Jesus Christ and the Rapture. This doctrine holds that at the End of Days, the faithful will be taken bodily up into Heaven, leaving the rest of us behind. The End of Days will be heralded by Armageddon, a great battle between Good and Evil. In order for Jesus to return, Jerusalem has to be occupied by the Jews. Nonetheless, the Jews themselves will not be saved unless they profess faith in Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that Evangelicals are so keen for the US to support Israel’s destructive and disruptive influence in the Middle East. It is also why Evangelical Christians so stubbornly refuse to acknowledge man-made climate change. They have no need to worry about the future as the Rapture is coming any day now and if the rest of us are left on a hell on earth it is God’s will and what we unbelievers deserve.
But it gets worse than that.
It is my firm belief that George W. Bush undertook the invasion of Iraq in order to bring on the End of Days, as Armageddon is believed to be in Iraq. It explains why his administration refused to do any post-invasion planning. Why bother when the Rapture is coming? (Though I believe Dick Cheney went along with this dangerous nonsense because he knew there was more money to be made from chaos than from order.) If another, even more fanatical, Evangelical Christian were to become Commander-in-Chief of the US military machine, who knows what hell he could unleash in pursuit of the Rapture.
So, you see, in my eyes, this is more than an academic debate. We need to save the world from Christianity, and one way we can do this is by undermining the faith of its followers in its founding myth. Acknowledging that Jesus is a heavenly rather than earthly being, just like God himself, would not damage the faith of true Christians, but it could destroy the hold fundamentalism has on its adherents.
© Pauline Montagna 2022
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, HarperOne (2009)
David Fitzgerald, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, Lulu (2010)
David Fitzgerald, Jesus: Mything in Action, Create Space (2016)